Following is a discussion of ski touring equipment intended to aid individuals interested in learning about backcountry ski touring. At Ski Mountaineers Section meetings ("Mugelnoos Meetings") leaders and members will be glad to answer questions and offer assistance.
You will have to decide whether you wish to use telemark (free heel), or alpine touring (AT, or randonnée) gear. At one time there were considerable differences in these two methods of backcountry travel, such as weight, cost, and skiability. The differences have almost disappeared, except that your heels are either free or locked down, as you prefer. Plastic boots and wider skis provide telemark skiers with control and skiability similar to that of AT gear, and weight and cost factors are also very much the same. Therefore, if you are experienced in the use of either type of equipment, it would seem best to stick with what you are used to, at least at first. Using modern telemark equipment, strong downhill skiers are usually able to easily adapt to free-heel skiing.
Shaped and Fat Skis - In recent years much has been made of shaped skis with more sidecut (difference in the width from tip or tail to the waist underfoot), or fat skis (wider underfoot). Most Alpine and telemark skis nowadays are shaped. While Alpine skis intended for beginners often have tails almost as wide as the shovel in front, skis intended for steeper slopes tend to have narrower tails so that the tails will not catch. Fat skis are particuarly useful in soft or ungroomed snow, as in powder or the backcountry in winter. Ski widths are given in three numbers expressed in millimeters (mm), such as 100-70-90, indicating the width at the shovel, waist, and tail. This is a fat ski with a lot of sidecut.
Prior to the early 1980's, SMS members skied primarily on alpine touring (AT) gear. These days most members favor telemark gear. The change to free-heel technique and gear occurred because free-heel gear and the telemark turn offer great flexibility in variable backcountry snow, although AT gear offers more control in steep icy conditions.
Cross-Country Skiing - Cross country skiing is a catchall name for several different kinds of skiing (track, touring, downhill) that use different kinds of skis. Local ski shop salespeople often do not understand the differences. One pair of skis will not do it all, at least not very well.
Telemark Skis - Telemark skis are made for downhill turning. They have sidecut and metal edges for secure edging and turning control, especially on hard or icy snow. In the past, tele skis have been narrower (71-81 mm shovel width) than traditional downhill skis. Now their widths are much the same. Some tele skis are designed with a stiffer flex for use on firm snow, primarily at lift service areas, and may be more difficult to ski in softer backcountry snow. Some soft-flex downhill skis available in spring sales are suitable for telemarking. Find out what is popular with ski area locals.
Telemark Bindings - With wider skis and plastic boots, cable bindings (one brand is a combination cable and 3-pin) have become popular as they improve pressure and control of the ski, and eliminate the possibility of the boot's pin holes wearing or ripping out. However, 3-pins are lighter, less expensive, and have fewer parts that might break. When using high stiff tele boots, with plastic cuffs, or full plastic boots, serious consideration should be given to using a releasable binding systen such as the Voilé to avoid serious leg or knee injuries. Telemark bindings should be mounted so that the pins (or the equivalent position on a pinless cable binding) are on the ski's chord center point (the half way point between the tip and tail).
Telemark Boots - Whether using leather, leather with plastic cuffs, or full plastic, good fit is extremely important, or you will not be a happy skier. Uphill touring can cause severe pressure points on your heels, so tape heels before blisters start. Heel posts can be placed under your boot heels on steep uphills to reduce heel pressure, and will make the climb easier. Do not underestimate the amount of boot needed to steer and edge the newer wide skis. Plastic boots have excelled in this area since they offer a lifetime of superior torsional rigidity. Even an extremely stiff leather boot will break down over time and offer less rigidity/stiffness. Be sure your boots, skis, and bindings are compatible, and do not forget gaiters to keep the snow out.
Alpine Skis - Compared to downhill skis for use at a ski area, skis designed specifically for alpine touring are generally wider, lighter, skied in shorter lengths, and better able to handle a variety of different snow conditions. Downhill skis that can be considered for backcountry use include those designated as all-mountain skis, advanced recreational, and "bump" skis. Look for skis that have a softer flex (for soft, or crud snow), and good torsional rigidity (for edging on hard snow), and shorter in length (for easier turning and less weight).
Alpine Touring Bindings - There are a number of good touring bindings on the market that provide toe and heel release in the downhill mode, and free heel lift for uphill touring. Most are plate bindings, but several new models are much lighter because they use the boot's stiff sole in place of a binding plate (Dynafit Tourlite boot, and the Dynafit Tech binding is one; and this system is lighter than many tele boots and bindings).
Alpine Touring Boots - Plastic AT boots look like a downhill boot but have a lug sole, and usually have a little less downhill performance. The cuff can be adjusted to flex when walking. Still, some are easier to walk in than others and some have better downhill performance. Good fit is very important, and if adjustments are needed, seek out a good ski shop (such as Footloose in Mammoth Lakes). Some people do tour in regular downhill boots if not much hiking is required. Downhill boot soles do not provide good traction on rocky or slippery surfaces. Plastic mountaineering boots may fit in some AT bindings, but may not reliably release from the binding during a fall because they are not as stiff as an AT boot. Crampons can be fitted to AT boots, so there is little reason to risk injury by skiing in soft boots.
Poles - Use traditional downhill-length poles rather than armpit-length nordic touring poles which are too long for good downhill technique or climbing steep slopes. Adjustable-length poles are available if you want to vary the length of your poles. Grips should be comfortable for touring, and baskets should not be the very small type designed for lift-served, firm-snow skiing. When skiing in wooded areas, it is advisable not to use wrist straps to avoid arm or shoulder injury in the event a pole catches on branches or brush. Many adjustable and some fixed-length poles will convert to avalanche probes, a good feature for backcountry gear.
Skins - Climbing skins are available in different widths, and should be wide enough to cover all but the metal edges of your skis to maximize climbing ability, particularly when traversing hard snow. If the skins you purchase are longer than your skis, cut off any excess rather than wrapping the excess around the tail. Keep self-adhesive skins out of the dirt, and store them dry in a sturdy plastic bag to prevent the glue from drying. Fold the ends of each skin to its center, sticky sides together. Nylon and mohair skins perform equally well; however, nylon skins are more durable. Dark-colored skins are preferred as they dry faster.
Shovels - Shovels are carried on many trips for building a snow shelter, digging a snow kitchen, leveling a tent site, and expediting an avalanche rescue. Many models offer removable handles for easy packing. Shovel materials come in either plastic or aluminum. The shovel should be easily accessible when travelling in avalanche terrain.
Avalanche Beacons - Using an avalanche transmitter/receiver (beacon) is a crucial safety measure in the backcountry. The beacon transmits a signal pattern which rescuers may use to locate the victim by switching to the receive mode. Formerly, beacons were sold that transmitted on one of two different frequencies. The new single frequency standard of 457 khz is now in effect in the US. Beacons sensitive to both frequencies are available for use with mixed equipment. A beacon is only as good as the user's skills, so practice searches are essential for maintaining a high level of safety. It is important to understand that many people caught in avalanches die before they can be rescued, so that using a beacon is no substitute for proper route selection in avalanche terrain.
The following list comes from the Angeles Chapter Schedule of Activities:
Additional items essential to the ski mountaineer: